OPINION: It’s time to ban Alaska’s unethical hunting methods in national preserves

Over the years, I have written many commentaries critical of our state’s management — or rather mismanagement — of wildlife, particularly bears and wolves. Now and then, I have also been able to celebrate actions that have afforded Alaska’s wildlife much needed, and often long-overdue, protections.

One such instance occurred in 2015. That year the National Park Service (NPS) issued rules that prohibit certain state-sanctioned “sport hunting” methods in Alaska’s national preserves; methods that the agency — along with many wildlife scientists and the majority of the public — consider inappropriate in such places.

The NPS concluded that the banned practices were intended to reduce predator numbers in order to increase populations of so-called prey species (for instance moose, caribou and Dall sheep) for the benefit of human hunters. In short, the banned methods were and are a form of predator control, at odds with the Park Service’s own policies and mandates.

This happened during President Barack Obama’s second term and of course it infuriated state wildlife officials, our Congressional delegation, many other Alaska politicians, and sport hunting and big-game guiding groups that benefit from such predator-kill regulations. Still, many of us Alaskans applauded the action as the correct response to what we consider unsporting and unethical practices.

I will emphasize here that the NPS rules applied only to sport-hunting activities in national preserves and don’t affect federally authorized subsistence practices in any way, since they are based on different traditions and needs.

Fast-forward five years to the presidency of Donald Trump. In 2020, under Trump’s watch, the NPS reversed its long-held and well-reasoned position, declaring all sport hunting methods allowed by the state to also be permissible in national preserves.

This reversal pleased most Alaska politicians, as well as some sport hunting and big-game guiding groups. But it upset many Alaskans and wildlife advocates across the state and the country. According to the NPS, more than 99% of 200,000-plus comments opposed the Trump-era rule change.


In December 2021, more than a dozen groups — including several Alaska organizations — filed a lawsuit to have the 2020 NPS rules overturned. In October 2022, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason found that the Park Service had erred in overturning the 2015 rules, but curiously did not require the 2020 regulations to be rescinded, her rationale being that the agency was already working to revise them.

Early this year, on Jan. 9, the NPS announced its intent to reinstate the 2015 bans on any state-sanctioned sport-hunting practices that it considers predator-reduction efforts within national preserves. For those who may be wondering, I’ll note that all sport hunting is prohibited in national parks and monuments.

The announcement launched a two-month comment period that ends March 10.

Not surprisingly, state wildlife officials have protested this reversal and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang indicated the state would go to court to “defend our authority to manage fish and wildlife on federal lands.”

For those curious what sort of “sport hunting” practices acceptable to the state in some locales would be banned in national preserves, the NPS says the following would be prohibited:

• The killing of black bears, including cubs and sows with cubs, with the use of artificial lights at den sites.

• The use of “bait stations” to attract and kill black and brown bears (commonly called bear baiting).

• The use of dogs to hunt black bears.

• The killing of wolves and coyotes, including pups, during the denning season.

• The killing of swimming caribou.

• The killing of caribou from motorboats.

Again, the federally authorized subsistence harvest of bears, wolves, caribou and other wildlife would not be affected.

How anyone can consider the methods above to be acceptable sport hunting practices is beyond me. The NPS has described them accurately as a form of “predator reduction” sanctioned by the state. In fact, ADFG and the Alaska Board of Game consider them essential elements of their “intensive management” policies and regulations, which is indeed a state-managed predator-kill scheme.

As I’ve argued before, the sport hunting practices in question should be prohibited everywhere in Alaska, because they violate any reasonable notion of “fair chase” practices. The sad fact is the state now allows and promotes methods that most people — and most sport hunters — would consider unethical by modern standards. And it has done so with the complicity of all those Alaskans who haven’t protested this step-by-step escalating war on predators.

Some may bristle at my use of “war,” but it’s in war that almost anything goes to defeat the enemy and normal ethical standards are set aside, correct? And that’s the place we seem to have reached, or returned to, in Alaska when it comes to the hunting of wolves and bears.

I will point out here that many wildlife scientists also condemn our state’s wildlife-management policies and priorities. In 2019, I referenced a commentary published in the peer-reviewed scientific publication “PLOS Biology.” Titled ”Large Carnivores Under Assault in Alaska,” the piece was authored by four men, three of them with close connections to Alaska. John Schoen and Sterling Miller are highly respected wildlife scientists who once worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; both are widely known for their bear research. The third Alaskan, Sandy Rabinowitch, had a long career with the National Park Service and worked on many Alaska wildlife-management issues. All are highly qualified to comment on Alaska’s mismanagement of bears and wolves.

The arguments the authors made were convincing. But again, the evidence is nothing new. What was noteworthy in this instance was the platform of the critique and the scientific credentials of its authors.


The abstract asserted that Alaska’s gray wolves and both brown and black bears “are managed in most of the state in ways intended to significantly reduce their abundance in the expectation of increasing hunter harvests of ungulates. To our knowledge, Alaska is unique in the world because this management priority is both widespread and mandated by state law. Large carnivore management in Alaska is a reversion to outdated management concepts and occurs without effective monitoring programs designed to scientifically evaluate impacts on predator populations. Large carnivore management in Alaska should be based on rigorous science ...”

The body of the piece pointed out that much of the state’s intensive management program is done through liberalized hunting regulations and makes clear that the state of Alaska’s wildlife management system is outdated, regressive and scientifically indefensible.

I offer all of this as clear evidence that the NPS is more than justified in rejecting the sport-hunting methods that are part of Alaska’s ongoing — and “scientifically indefensible” — predator-reduction efforts; and Alaskans need to pay closer attention to our state’s continued war against bears and wolves and demand long-overdue change.

A good first step is to support the current NPS proposal to reinstate the rules the agency put in place back in 2015. Comments can be submitted online.

While state wildlife officials have expressed their anger over the Park Service’s actions, Alaskan residents who care about all our wildlife are the ones who should truly be outraged at a wildlife management system that is both outdated and in many ways reprehensible.

Anchorage nature writer wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."